SAN JOSE -– At the beginning of the month, Sharks coach Pete DeBoer laid out what he wanted to see from one of his young defensemen in order to lock down that rotating sixth spot on the blue line.
“In order to get that benefit of the doubt you’ve got to string together eight or 10 really good games. That’s just the reality of it,” DeBoer said on Dec. 2.
Fast forward four weeks later, and Dylan DeMelo is emerging as the player that’s been able to do that. Wednesday’s game against the Flyers marked the ninth straight that the 22-year-old has been in the lineup, paired with Brenden Dillon on the team’s third defense pair.
In what has been essentially an ongoing internal competition between DeMelo, Matt Tennyson and Mirco Mueller, DeMelo is emerging as the conqueror. Mueller is with the AHL Barracuda, while Tennyson was recently reassigned there for a conditioning assignment due to his not playing since Dec. 8 in Calgary.
DeBoer wasn’t ready to declare DeMelo a full-time established NHL player just yet, but he clearly indicated that the former sixth round pick is trending the right direction.
“I think he is passing the test,” DeBoer said. “I don’t know when that test ever ends. I don’t think there’s a cutoff point where you say ‘OK, now you’ve arrived,’ but he’s been very reliable, steady and safe. I know [Sharks asst. coach] Bob Boughner feels very comfortable with him. And, he’s a competitive kid on top of that. He makes good decisions, and I think we feel real good about where he’s at right now and how he’s helping us.”
DeMelo said: “I think for the most part I’ve been pretty consistent and playing the simple hockey that’s gotten me here. I think that’s what’s helped me to stay in the lineup.”
DeMelo played his first two NHL games in October, but didn’t look all that comfortable while skating on his off side on the left. Now that the right-hander is on the right side with lefty Dillon, he looks much more like he belongs. DeMelo is still searching for his first career point in 11 NHL games with a minus-two rating, but he’s never going to be judged by his offensive production. Instead, he needs to make the simple play and not make any blatant errors leading to goals-against.
The Sharks’ 3-1-1 road trip just before Christmas may have been a turning point for DeMelo. As the visiting team the Sharks didn’t get last change, so DeMelo and Dillon were often on the ice against the other team’s best players.
DeMelo pointed to a game in Los Angeles on Dec. 22, when the Sharks fought back from a third period deficit to shock the Kings, 5-3.
“In L.A. I had a long shift against [Milan] Lucic and [Anze] Kopitar in the third period and held my own,” DeMelo said. “I think I did a pretty good job. Especially on the road, you sometimes you get stuck out there against the top lines, but I think that’s a great test for myself. I think I’ve handled myself pretty good so far.”
DeBoer also credited Dillon, another simple blueliner who doesn’t try to be flashy, for helping DeMelo along.
"I think Dillon is playing fantastic hockey for us," DeBoer said. "He’s been really good for DeMelo from the point of just being a steadying influence for him. Those guys have been very reliable."
Dillon said: “[DeMelo] always wants to know, ‘hey, Dills, on that certain play what could I do better?’ I think that eagerness to learn has been one of his best attributes.”
While DeMelo has been eager to learn, Dillon seems just as eager to pass along his knowledge.
“He’s been in my ear since the beginning of camp,” DeMelo said. “I can really lean on him. He’s been great for me off the ice. We chat all the time and we’ve gotten to know each other, so I think that’s helped our relationship and our chemistry.”
The challenge now for DeMelo is turning nine straight games into another nine straight games, and nine more after that.
“Now that I’m here and now that I’m in the lineup, I just want to do what I can to stay in there,” he said.